May 7th, 2007

TV Use Pervasive Among Tiniest Tots

By Serena Gordon
Washington Post

Parents don’t seem to be heeding expert pediatrician guidelines that urge a ban on TV watching for their very youngest children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends that children 2 and under watch no TV at all.

However, a new study finds that on a typical day, only 37 percent of children between zero and 2 years old watch no television, and as many as one in five youngsters under 2 even have a television placed in their bedrooms. More than half (54 percent) of these tiny tots could turn on the TV themselves.

“I understand the AAP’s stance, because we don’t yet know the neurological implications of screen time in young children,” said the study’s author, Elizabeth Vandewater, associate director of the population research center and an associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas in Austin.

On the other hand, she said, “I don’t think the guidelines are realistic.”

The study’s findings weren’t all bad. Vandewater found that just over half of 3- to 4-year-olds and 70 percent of 5- and 6-year-olds watched no more than the recommended limit of two hours daily. In the 3 to 6 age group, TV in the bedroom became more common, with about one-third having a set in the bedroom.

The findings were published in the May issue ofPediatrics.

To learn more about actual viewing habits in young children, Vandewater and her colleagues surveyed 1,051 parents of young children during 2005. They asked about media use, whether or not there was a TV in the bedroom, and also about other activities, such as reading and playing outdoors, to see if TV use was supplanting other pursuits.

On an average day, three-quarters of children watched at least some television, and about one-third watched videos or DVDs, the study found. The average viewing time was one hour and 20 minutes, which falls within the AAP guideline of no more than one to two hours for children over 3.

The researchers didn’t find that TV typically displaced other activities, such as reading or outdoor play. However, Vandewater said that in previous research she’s conducted, she has found that TV may replace time spent interacting with parents.

“It’s important to remember that if you turn off the TV, the assumption is that the family will spend time together, but that’s not always true. They might find other things to do separately,” she said. “It’s also important that we don’t assume all time spent with parents is good, quality time. If parents are under stress, that’s not necessarily a good time to be together, and it might not be so bad to pop in a video for a half an hour,” Vandewater said.

She also commiserated with parents who might find the “no TV” rule tough to adhere to. “Media and technology are not going away,” Vandewater said. “They’re part of the backdrop of our everyday lives—TV stands are now standard living room furniture. So, we need to figure out how to give advice that’s workable.”

Dr. Christopher Lucas, director of the early childhood service at the New York University Child Study Center in New York City, agreed that it’s difficult to keep children under 2 from watching any TV, because TV has become so ubiquitous in American life.

“The guidelines seem out of sync with what the reality is,” said Lucas.

Neither Vandewater or Lucas is specifically advocating TV watching for young children. Instead, they’re just acknowledging that it does occur and that there’s currently no evidence to prove that it’s harmful.

Lucas said to be helpful, TV needs to be put into context for children. “Unsupervised, passive watching probably isn’t helpful, but educational media—when watched with parents or another caregiver—could be helpful,” he said.

Both Vandewater and Lucas were concerned about the growing trend of TVs in children’s bedrooms. Most often, parents interviewed in the study said they put a TV set in their kid’s room because it freed up other TVs in the house for parental use.

“There is a growing body of literature showing that TV in the bedroom is related to a host of negative outcomes. I would strongly urge parents not to put TV in a child’s bedroom,” said Vandewater.

“There’s this belief that TV is helpful to children and may soothe them, but TV activates the brain and actually makes it more difficult to sleep,” explained Lucas.

Vandewater’s final advice? “Media is a treat. Like any other treat, it’s best in moderation.”

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